Marawi: Winning the War After the Battle

Joseph Franco 29 Nov 2017


After five months of urban combat, the Battle for Marawi appeared to pre-empt the establishment of an Islamic State (IS) wilayah in the southern Philippines. But while Marawi remains in ruins, the Philippine military is again involved in a campaign to root out IS-linked militants in the rural hinterlands of central Mindanao. Beyond victories in the kinetic space, it is clear that socio-economic roots of conflict in Mindanao need to be resolved lest Marawi just be the harbinger of recurring conflict. It remains unclear how President Rodrigo Duterte can successfully steer initiatives against violent extremists in the face of incoherent CVE messaging.

The Battle for Marawi

On 23 May 2017, Philippine security forces raided a safe house in Marawi City after the reported sighting of Isnilon Hapilon, the purported “emir”, or leader, of IS-pledged forces in Southeast Asia. Hapilon was previously known as the leader of one major Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) faction in Basilan province. He moved from his stronghold in Basilan Island to central Mindanao to evade operations by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). On the mainland, he joined forces with Omar and Abdullah Maute, leaders of another IS-pledged organisation known as the Maute Group (MG).

What was initially intended as an in-extremis operation to disrupt the plan of Hapilon and his MG allies to launch attacks on Ramadan, degenerated into widespread clashes. The AFP initially estimated the number of militants involved to be only a few dozen. However, as the fighting continued, it became clear that hundreds of terrorist fighters were involved, including dozens of foreigners from Indonesia and Malaysia, and from further afield, for instance, from Saudi Arabia.

The protracted nature of the conflict stemmed largely from the distinctiveness of the built environment in Marawi. Compared to other provincial cities, Marawi’s homes and commercial establishments are built of reinforced concrete—a response to the recurring instances of clan conflict unconnected to jihadist movements. When the skirmishes erupted, the centre of Marawi was repurposed as fortified complex, with reinforced homes and establishments turned into fighting positions.

The Battle for Marawi seized the attention of both local and foreign analysts for several reasons. First, the scale of the violence. Prior to Marawi, the 2013 Zamboanga City siege was considered the largest urban combat scenario in recent Philippine history. In Zamboanga, 500 disgruntled former rebels occupied a residential area and held off a military assault for 19 days. The Battle for Marawi lasted for 5 months with more than 900 militants (including Hapilon and the Maute brothers) and 165 security forces killed.

Second, the battle saw the extensive use of commercial off-the-shelf systems, such as drones, by both parties to the conflict. The MG was able to use consumer-grade hobbyist quadcopters as surveillance assets to detect AFP movements. On the other hand, the AFP also used similar drones to supplement their limited surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Finally, the battle proved to be a useful propaganda narrative for the IS core, which at the time was reeling from the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq. In June 2017, the IS magazine Rumiyah published a special issue titled “The Jihad in East Asia”, which sought to provide dispatches from their new front. This was followed by propaganda videos in the “Inside the Khilafah” series, which showed IS-pledged militants fighting the Philippine military and exhorting foreign fighters to go to Marawi. The narrative was slanted to place blame for the destruction of the city with the AFP and to emphasise how the jihad in Marawi was a defensive campaign.

The Wider Mindanao Milieu

While the battle may be over, the existence of ungoverned spaces in central Mindanao provides potential sanctuaries to IS-inspired militants. It must be stressed that prior to Marawi, the MG were already notorious for their criminal activity in rural municipalities of Lanao del Sur province. Omar and Abdullah Maute operated an extortion ring and protection racket. Their activities were indistinguishable from other private armed groups in Mindanao which carve out their own erstwhile fiefdom. The brothers were merely an extension of the clan’s forays into local politics—armed militias were used to intimidate or suppress rival clans.

Sans the infusion of jihadist iconography, central Mindanao would likely persist as an arena for violent political conflict at the grassroots. Such an environment is enabled by the glut of illicit firearms in Mindanao. Decades of secessionist conflict against the central government in Manila have created a market for weapons and ammunition, either pilfered or diverted from government stockpiles. Aside from the ready availability of weapons, the low levels of human development and weak governance further incentivise the emergence of a constellation of armed groups: jihadist-inspired, millenarian Christian collectives, and landowner militias.

Incoherent CVE Policy and Messaging

Jihadist ideology appears to be a useful justification for violence, rather than the underlying motivation. When the MG first emerged, their use of IS-related imagery was an opportunistic attempt to differentiate themselves from other private armed groups/militias in central Mindanao. This interpretation of the genesis and persistence of the MG suggests that dealing with similar groups requires non-ideological initiatives focussing on the socioeconomic conditions that exist in the violent milieu in Mindanao.

Whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is up to the task remains to be seen. Duterte ascended to the presidency on the heels of a campaign promising peace and order. But more than a year after being sworn into office, Duterte has yet to promulgate and implement a coherent nationwide CVE strategy. Contrary to his image as a go-getter, the Philippine government is exhibiting inertia and continuity. Efforts to win over hearts and minds remain the prerogative of local military commanders. Existing efforts are limited to ad hoc measures to organise youth empowerment and provide financial support to former militants. With most of the attention and resources going into rebuilding Marawi, such ad hoc initiatives would be the only preventive actions taken against jihadist recruitment. More likely, military-led prevention and CVE initiatives will face more fiscal constraints due to the demands of reconstruction.

And while policies to address the material roots of the conflict are at least progressing, if piecemeal, coherent CVE messaging remains a challenge. Starting with the President himself, there appears to be confusion on how to best convey the resolve of the state to address IS-inspired groups. On separate occasions, Duterte characterised militants as impoverished individuals “driven to desperation”, only to threaten them that he would literally “eat their livers with salt and vinegar”.


The end of the physical IS caliphate in Syria and Iraq would probably see inspired groups in Mindanao reverting to their previous modes of committing violence against local targets for local goals. Given the deep roots of conflict in Mindanao, it would be unwise to claim that the demise of an idealised caliphate will cascade into similar defeats among ASG and MG remnants. But this pervasive disconnect between jihadist aspirations and real-world material conditions also acted as a self-limiting factor that inhibited links between the IS core and Filipino militants. Given the non-ideological triggers behind Marawi, it would be wise for policymakers to refrain from enacting heavy-handed counter-ideological initiatives. Fixation on superficial trappings of affiliation to IS may be counterproductive in getting the people of Mindanao involved in winning the war for popular support after the Battle for Marawi.


About the Author

Joseph Franco is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.